You CAN Write Remarkable Content

You Can Write Remarkable Content

It may take a few tries but hang in there

I was privileged to attend a conference a few weeks ago presented by Merrimack College as part of it’s 2012-2013 Leadership Series entitled “It’s Time to Create Your Digital Platform!” As a perk of membership in the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce, admission was free. I gladly would have paid. Two of the three speakers, Michael Hyatt and Brian Halligan, are best selling  authors. Halligan also happens to be co-founder and CEO of Hubspot, a marketing software company that helps businesses transform the way they market their products. The third, Sally Falkow, is a highly respected public relations guru. I took notes, scribbled down links to websites, wrote down recommended book titles, sent out real time tweets and, giving in to my inner geek, got my books signed by the authors. Later, when life had slowed  down some, I looked over  my notes. One phrase jumped off the page. Each of the speakers said it during their presentations. Some said it more than once.  It took on the aspect of a mantra. To get noticed in a noisy world, you have to write remarkable content.

Sound Scary? It Doesn’t Have To Be

I started thinking about my clients – you – the good people who sometimes read my blog. I’ve heard you say it. “I’m not a writer. I can’t write remarkable content.” Well here’s how my trusty Oxford American Dictionary defines the word “remarkable.”

re • mark • a • ble (ri-mahr-ka-bel) adj. worth noticing, exceptional, unusual.

If you’re not a professional writer I understand why you would be intimidated at the prospect of writing exceptional or unusual content.

It’s All About Your Audience

My point is this. If you sell concrete, your website should be geared to people who want to know more about concrete. Since concrete is your area of expertise I’m betting that you can produce content that, if not exceptional or unusual, is at least  worth noticing? That is to say worth noticing to your audience. Don’t get me wrong. No matter how much expertise you have in your field, a professional writer will always do a better job at crafting your web copy than you will. But if you focus more on the worth noticing part of the definition of remarkable and less on the exceptional and unusual parts, you just might be surprised at how remarkable your content is.

Some Helpful Resources

If you’d like to dive a little deeper into the world of remarkable content, here are a few links that are favorites of mine. I hope you’ll find them helpful:

Now Back to You

Did you write your own copy for your website? How did that go? Or did you hire someone to write it for you? Were you satisfied with the result?

P.S. To my writer friends and colleagues. Don’t be angry with me for suggesting that clients on a limited budget might want to try writing their own copy. My intent here was to give them some helpful advice if they want to go in that direction. Know this. They will never replace you.

Form Follows Function – Doesn’t It?

Form Follows Function

“The Crooked House” at Sopot, Poland.

When I pressed a client recently to provide me with the content for her new website, she confessed to having trouble producing it. “Why don’t you show me some designs,” she asked, “and maybe that will help me write the content.” Alarms sounded in my head. Imagine this scenario. You hire an architect to design you a building. In your initial meeting she asks you a simple question: “What will be going inside the building“? You reply, “I don’t know yet but if you show me some designs I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Ridiculous right? It made me think.

Does “Form Follows Function” Apply to Web Design?

In a well researched and highly engaging article by Steven Bradley, Smashing Magazine tackles the question. And as it turns out, the answer isn’t black and white. The term was first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 article. He wrote:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Ironically, it was Sullivan’s most gifted student, Frank Lloyd Wright, who adapted the axiom to changing technologies in the field of architecture:


Bradley’s study reveals many instances in which form does not follow function… in nature for example. Says Bradley, “evolution passes on genetic traits to subsequent generations without any rationale for their purpose. Each generation of a species then finds a use for the form it has inherited. Function follows form in nature“.

Fair enough.

Content First, Design Second

The form follows function axiom is simply too broad and high minded to apply in any meaningful way to the relationship between a website’s design and its content – that is to say content as distinct from functionality. In my practice, content first, design second is a rule of thumb that makes more sense and has more practical applications. Simply put, a website’s content should inform its design, not the other way around. Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the leading minds in web standards in the last twenty five years puts it this way:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

What Are You Trying to Say and Who Are You Saying it To?

So what about my client who asked me to show her some designs before she could write the content? My advice to her was this. Think about what you are trying to say and who you are saying it to. Then put it all down on paper without thinking about color, layout, proximity, or any other elements of look and feel. That way you will ensure that your content is not being influenced by design. Then let’s review it together. We’ll talk about ways to ensure that your message is being read – things like bullet lists, text boxes, call-to-action elements, use of color and shape. Yes, it’s possible to start the process with a beautiful design then try to make the content fit. But like the building pictured above, it will eventually cave in on itself.

Now Back to You

When you built your website, assuming you have one, how did the process go? Did you produce the content first or was it the other way around? If you worked with a web design firm, how did they approach the process? I’d love to hear from you.

Stuff – How Much is Enough?

Too Much Stuff

Stuff I Haven’t Worn in Well Over a Year. It’s Gone Now.

I‘ve always believed that less is more. It’s a worldview that informs a lot  of what I do. In music, fewer notes almost always works better for me than lots of notes. In writing, concise is better than verbose. In web design, white space is better than gratuitous design elements. But here’s the thing – and I’ll use music as the analogy. To say what you want to say in fewer rather than more notes, each note must mean more. Each note has to have emotion, has to be expressive, has to breathe, has to let the listener fill in the blanks and use their imagination. B.B. King is a master at this. Every note he plays tells a story.  I can’t  explain it. It  just is. And those whom he has influenced – Eric Clapton comes to mind – have that same quality. Don’t get me wrong. Clapton can rip off a blizzard of notes when he wants to. The point is he doesn’t have  to.

Same  Goes for Stuff

So when I came across this wonderful blog post by Julien Smith about stuff, I had an epiphany. I have too much stuff. Somewhere along the line I heard that if you have clothes in your closet that you don’t wear for an entire year, you don’t need them. So, like a man possessed, I threw open my closet door, identified the stuff I hadn’t worn in years, threw  it in a big pile on my office floor, gathered it up and brought it to the nearest Goodwill box.  Ahh! What a relief. And as an added bonus, Julien’s post contained a link to a fascinating video by Graham  Hill, the founder of Life Edited, a site dedicated to the proposition that we can all live a very happy, fulfilling life while leaving a very small footprint. Hill  puts his money where his mouth is. Literally. He lives in a tiny apartment in Manhattan that can somehow seat ten people around a dining room table, sleep two guests comfortably in their own beds and a whole lot more. You’ll have to watch the video to see how he does it.

More About Stuff

All this attention on stuff got me thinking about the classic George Carlin bit about….well it’s about stuff. How much we have, how much we want, how we protect it, how we build our lives around it, how it runs our lives. This clip is 26 years old but like all great comedy, still very relevant. Take a break from sorting through your stuff and watch this. You will laugh. A lot. I promise.

And Now Back to You

Have you ever thought about how much stuff you have? Do you ever wonder if you need  it all? What do you do with it? Do you still have unopened boxes you’ve carried around through several moves? Do you tend  to get rid of stuff every now and then? I’d love to hear from you on this one. Talk to me?

WordPress Invades Hub 2012

WordCamp 2012

When I was deciding which CMS (Content Management Platform)  to adopt as my primary web building tool, I chose WordPress because of the size and enthusiasm of its community. Well, I just wrapped up WordCamp 2012 (read my take on WordCamp 2011)  hosted, again, by Boston University and can tell you the community is growing in both size and enthusiasm. It’s also getting younger – or maybe it’s me just getting older. In any case, I’m encouraged by the collective intelligence, creativity and determination of our 20 and 30 somethings.

Who Are All These Smart People?

So as I did last year, I’d like to thank the following people for making me smarter:

Web Designer's Guide to WordPress Book Cover

Jesse Friedman’s book. As he says, “Buy It!”

*Jesse Friedman wrote a book. Here is how he told us about it: “Oh, by the way, I wrote a book. Buy it.” I’m certainly going to, even though, as Jesse said, “you’ll have to wait four months to get it.” Gotta love the off-handed manner in which such a bright young guy announced such an impressive achievement.

See you all next year.


I Network, Therefore I Am

Buffalo Wild Wings in Saugus, Massachusetts hosting a networking event sponsored by the Saugus and Peabody Area Chambers of Commerce

Socializing is one of the most basic of human activities. This has been true since the dawn of man. Whether around a fire after a grueling hunt, or the television after an episode of American Idol, we love to gather and tell stories. We are social creatures. It’s what we do.

Socializing With an Agenda

I like to think of networking as socializing with an agenda. Madison Avenue got it right in the seventies with this classic commercial for Faberge shampoo. (I’m not hawking Faberge products. The video is for illustrative purposes only.) Remember the line “they’ll tell two friends and so on”? That’s networking.

Then there’s the young man who, in the early forties, developed a method for turning black polyethylene slag, a waste product produced in oil refinement, into a material that was flexible, tough, non-porous, non-greasy, odorless and translucent. He knew he had something but it wasn’t until he met Brownie Wise in 1948 that he and his product became household names. Brownie’s idea was to hold informal social gatherings in peoples’ homes to demonstrate the product. “If we build the people,” she was fond of saying, “they’ll build the business.” Apparently, Mary Kay and others were listening. The man was Earl Tupper and to this day, the Tupperware Home Party, remains the exclusive outlet for Tupperware. Earl Tupper sold his company to Rexall in 1958 for a staggering $16 million. That’s networking.

Note: Thanks to the Archive Center of the National Museum of American History for the Tupperware story.

Networking Etiquette

I said that networking is socializing with an agenda. There is nothing wrong with that. But you must play by the rules or you will lose the social capital you have earned and may never get it back. Here are some tips that work well for me:

  • don’t play at being interested in others. Be genuinely interested.
  • ask people what they do before you start talking about yourself. Listen to the answer. Really listen.
  • don’t lead a conversation by trying to sell your product or service. Instead, seek to establish your expertise or authority.
  • dress appropriately – this  may seem obvious but I’m still amazed at how many people show up at networking events dressed for the beach, or the nightclub or …. well you get my point.
  • act appropriately – this too may seem obvious, but if you’re spending more time chatting up the bartender than the other professionals in the room ….. well you get my point.
  • business cards – yes, exchange business cards. That’s why you’re there – to expand your professional network. But don’t, I repeat, don’t add your new contacts to your mailing list without asking permission. This is a real pet peeve of mine.
  • don’t be shy – this is a tough one. If you’re shy by nature than the whole idea of networking is probably challenging for you. Remember that everyone is there for the same reason – to make new contacts and expand their sphere of influence. Once you introduce yourself to a few people you will get into the groove.

The thing about networking etiquette is that the rules aren’t codified or written down anywhere; they’re mostly a matter of common courtesy. But like all rules, violating them comes with a penalty. Many of the people you are likely to meet at networking events are seasoned business professionals. If you come to the party shamelessly selling your wares or talking about yourself non-stop or grabbing business cards and leaving, you will not be taken seriously. That’s the penalty.

And Now Back to You

Are you a networker? Do you belong to any Chambers of Commerce or other professional networking organizations? Has your participation helped you grow your business? What tips can you give others to get more out of networking? Talk to me.

Worried About the Next Generation? Don’t Be.

Linda Samuels and Laverne Auguste

Linda Samuels (left) and Laverne Auguste (right)

Recently my good friend and colleague, Linda Samuels, invited me to sit on a panel of professional business people and entrepreneurs at the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University in Boston. The purpose of the gathering was their experiential/field research presentation of their business plans by four of Linda’s Executive MBA students. The members of the panel were there to listen, take notes, ask questions and make suggestions for the path forward. We were, after all, working professionals who presumably had taken our share of hits, gotten up off the canvas, persevered and  kept going.  I was honored to be invited.

College or College of Hard Knocks

There is a presumption among those entrepreneurs of my generation who did not go to college that the lessons learned in the so called  “College of Hard Knocks” are far more valuable than those learned in college. Not true! If I had been half as prepared to start my business as Linda’s students will be, I would have made fewer mistakes, lost less sleep and made more money. No matter how comprehensive a business plan is, you can never totally avoid the hardships of starting and growing a business. Linda’s students know this. That’s why their plans include an exit strategy. When I jumped into my business I didn’t know what an exit strategy was. I did what the Vikings used to do. I landed on foreign soil and burned the lifeboats. I couldn’t  “exit” if I wanted to.  So much for the “College of Hard Knocks.”

St. Lucia’s Gift to the World*

Laverne Auguste Presenting her Experiential Field Research

Laverne Auguste Presenting her Experiential Field Research

With Linda as my advisor/mentor and her commitment to my learning, I can truly say I felt empowered to conquer the entrepreneurial world.

Laverne Auguste

Back to Linda’s Executive MBA students. Meet Laverne Auguste. She is from the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Part of the Lesser Antilles, St. Lucia is located north/northeast of the island of Saint Vincent, northwest of Barbados and south of Martinique. As of 2010, its population was 174,000. Its main industry, like much of the Caribbean, is tourism. It’s easy to see why. Because her success depends largely on being first to market it would be imprudent for me to discuss the details of Laverne’s business. You will have to wait until she graces the cover of Entrepreneur Magazine. I will say this: She will create jobs and raise the standard of living first in her native St. Lucia, then throughout the Caribbean and quite possibly the rest of the developing world. Why do I say that? Because she has “it” – that combination of talent, passion and resilience that fuels all entrepreneurs. A young woman with her intelligence can succeed at anything. But she didn’t choose just anything. She chose something that she is passionate about and believes in. It was her passion and commitment that inspired her to name her company after her  grandmother, Martha Auguste, who instilled values in her as a child and even today is a major influence in her life . The fire is lit. It won’t go out.

My Takeaway

Listening to Laverne talk about her business was inspiring. Her plan was thorough and thoughtful. It covered every foreseeable  contingency. It  was also eye opening. I came home, pulled out my business plan and chuckled to myself. Let’s just say I had left some things out. Like burning the lifeboats. I will be going back to my plan and reworking it.

And Now Back to You

I’d love to hear from successful entrepreneurs who did not go to college. Did you ever wonder if your path would have been easier if you had? Do you feel like you missed something that you couldn’t have gotten any other way? Or looking back, do you think college wouldn’t have mattered that much? Talk to me.

Suffolk University's EMBA ProgramFind out more about Suffolk University’s Executive MBA program.

*In the interests of thoroughness I should point out that two Nobel laureates, Arthur Lewis, an economist, and Derek Walcott, a poet and playwright, have come from the island of St. Lucia. My guess however, is that future generations of St. Lucians will remember Laverne Auguste for having a greater impact on their daily lives.